Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Gardening: Time to think about Seeds

Every problem has in it the seeds of its own solution. If you don't have any problems, you don't get any seeds. – Norman Vincent Peale

Some healthy seedlings. Photo: MissMessie, Flickr ccl
It’s not really time to start seeds indoors yet, but in a few weeks you should be really thinking seriously about it. The garden catalogues are arriving fast and furious now, but who really has the money to buy plants of everything they want? Not me, that’s for sure.

Photo: Lucy Crosbie, Flickr ccl
The problem with purchasing plants is that you need to think several years ahead, not only for full growth but also about proper massing in your garden beds. 

There’s nothing quite as lonely as one beautiful plant sitting in your garden. It makes them look like a specimen. They don’t grow that way in nature, do they?

So what do you do to get many plants and not break the bank? Try your hand at starting some seeds. Starting seeds indoors isn’t super easy, but neither is it difficult if you follow some basic rules. 

You also have to be fastidious about tending those that do decide to give you a chance...

The four basics
Starting seeds indoors requires the same conditions that starting them later outside requires: light, soil, water, and nutrients.

A homemade light setup. (These lights are WAY too
far away to do any good...) Photo: di.winenaddine, Flickr ccl
Light is important
The most difficult of the four to provide indoors is sufficient light. You either have to have a very bright room where seedlings can get about 8 hours of light a day, or you need grow lights. Even then grow lights need to be on for about 12 hours per day.

Grow lights are lights that have full spectrum bulbs that mimic the sun. Plants need full spectrum light to grow properly. Grow “stations” can be purchased but believe me, they’re pricey. I used to own a three tier version, but after just two seasons decided it would be better if someone else owned it.

To use it effectively you have to adjust the distance of the light from the plants as they grow. Too little light will make your seedlings “leggy” and weak, and your failure rate will skyrocket. You need to look after them like you would if you’re incubating eggs. It’s a lot of tending.

You can get away with a home set-up of a hanging fluorescent light, and remember to purchase full spectrum bulbs. It’s quite easy to change the distance of the hanging fixture from your tray as in a purpose-built set up, but you still have to keep on top of how far away they are from your plants. At least your financial outlay is significantly less.

These plants are what I would call "leggy" – tall and weak.
Hopefully she's growing to cook with... Photo: Jane Boles, Flickr ccl
Start with clean soil
Most plants are started in potting soil. Potting soil very often has no soil in it at all. It's a mix of peat, vermiculite and other matter that allows it to be both water retentive and well-draining. 

It’s also sterile, so no diseases or pests are present. Potting soil has no nutrients either, so you'll need to add those in your water. That’s an easy step to forget.

At a certain point in your plants’ development they need to be placed in garden soil. Some people recommend sterilizing the soil in the oven before potting up your plants. It’s good advice to follow if you can do it.

When to start seeds
Newspaper can be used instead of peat pots.
Photo: henna lion, Flickr ccl
When to start seeds is one third science, one third meteorology and one third alchemy. The “count back” date is from your last outdoor frost. That has everything to do with where you live. In Nova Scotia we have had frosts in May, on occasion.

A rule of thumb is to start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks from that date. Different plants do require different start times, so check your seed packets. By 6-8 weeks you should have fairly decent plants that will be strong enough to withstand a little cool outdoor weather.

One important consideration that is often overlooked is acclimatization. Once your plants are ready for outdoor life, you need to slowly get them used to their new environment. That means you will either have to cover them at night or, better yet, keep in their pots and bring them back indoors for the first week or so.

Viable seed
It is almost always best to purchase new seed if you’re going to expend the effort of starting seeds indoors. Seed packets that are even one year old can have a reduced viability rate.

If you do have “old” seeds, test them. Place some of the seeds on a moistened paper towel, fold it over and put it in a plastic baggie. Place it in a warm area and check in in several days. The number of seeds that have sprouted give you a good indication of the percentage of viable seed in the whole packet.

I usually try to collect poppy seeds from our blousy orange
orientals every fall. I believe these are "somniferom."
Photo: Neville10, Flickr ccl
Self-seeding plants
If you have collected seeds from plants in the fall most of the above luckily doesn’t apply. Collected seed does have to have a period of cold (usually 2-3 months), so hopefully you stored them in your refrigerator or in a cold room.

About one month before everything starts to sprout outside, sprinkle them in their final location and cover lightly. This will prevent birds from having them for lunch. Much of the seed of self-sewing plants ends up as food for one creature or another which is a good reason to collect and store.

Your seeds should resume their growing cycle and continue on merrily as if they were in your garden all winter.

This is also a wonderful way to get “free” plants from neighbours’ gardens or wherever you may stumble across something you like. I have collected seeds from some unusual places.

The payoff
Starting seeds is a great way to increase the quantity of plants in your gardens while maintaining a positive balance in your bank account.

Grow lights are by far the most work intensive ways of adding plants, but it’s well worth the effort if you have the time and room to pull it off.

So don’t just look at those plant catalogues and file them away, mark down your favourites and go looking for seed suppliers!


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